A Maverick in Sancerre: Sébastien Riffault
Once you’ve tried Sébastien Riffault’s wines you might not be able to go back to drinking other Sancerre. They are transcendent. It’s become a quandary for me because while there are other Sancerre’s I used to love, I just can’t think of any that have as much expression.
When presented with a chance to taste or drink Riffault’s wines I’ll always say yes so when his California importer, Erin Sylvester, told me he was in LA a couple of weeks ago – when I happened to be there as well making sure my teenage nephews didn’t burn the house down in their parents absence – I invited him over to have a proper Southern California experience and watch the sun go down, poolside.
The Riffault family has been making wine in Sancerre for generations. My first encounter with one of their wines was in 2006 when Jenny & François was the US importer and the wine I bought, which was a couple of years old, still bore the Etienne Riffault label. Sébastien had been working with his father since 2002 and in ’04 began the arduous task of converting to biodynamic viticulture. At first, his papa was skeptical and only let him work with a small plot but it didn’t take long to convince him that biodynamic viticulture was the way to go.
For Sébastien, biodynamic practices are the minimum. An ardent believer in biodiversity he planted an array of flowers, plants and grass throughout his vineyards. It is amazing to witness his lively vineyards in contrast with his neighbor’s bald rows, which sadly is the norm in Sancerre. He never uses chemical pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, and sulfur and copper, which are organic compounds, are sprayed sparingly. The only “machines” are two horses that help him plow. He lets his friend, Alexandre Bain, who has similar practices, borrow them to plow his vineyards in Pouilly-Fumé.
Part of the reason why Sébastien’s wines are so different and ethereal is because he picks in mid-October when the grapes start to have botrytis. When I visited him he said that his method was widely practiced in Sancerre in the distant past but the fashion has changed. He is a maverick in this world famous region, making old school wines that vignerons many years his senior don’t understand.
There is also a potential peril that comes with his approach. Botrytis, which is a fungus, is desirable in sweet wines and leaves its mark on Sauternes, late harvest Rieslings and Tokaji Aszú. I’ve had dry wines with botrytis and it adds complexity, however, it can be problematic because it can turn into gray rot, giving what some might feel is an unpleasant fungal aroma. This, Sébastien says, is why most growers in Sancerre pick early. However, he strongly feels that gray rot can be largely avoided with biodynamic viticulture because it is less likely to occur if the vineyard is in balance. Also, compact grapes increase the risk of gray rot but harvesting manually allows growers to carefully sort through and remove the bad grapes and bunches. Since the vast majority of Sancerre’s grapes are harvested mechanically picking later is a risk.
And of course, now most consumers have come to think of Sancerre as a crisp, steely wine. I can’t fault anyone for that but if you want to try Sancerre that will make your brain taste and palate think, you should try not just one but all of Riffault’s cuvées.
2014 Riffault “Les Quarterons” ($30)
I use Les Quarterons to introduce people to Riffault. The fruit comes from a 30-year-old vineyard planted on clay and limestone. It has 20% botrytis and is fermented in stainless steel so it has some of the snap that consumers expect from Sancerre. After native fermentation, the wine spends two years in stainless steel tank. Bottled unfined and unfiltered with a minimum addition of 10 ppm, it is relatively “recognizable” Sancerre yet I still find it to have as much depth and more character than just about any other Sancerre you’ll find. The botrytis adds a touch of honey to the nose, accenting the citrus character of the grape and minerality from the soil.
2012 Riffault “Akmèniné” ($36)
The 2009 Akmèniné changed the way I thought about Sancerre as it was the first lieu-dit I had from Riffault. Granted, I have a penchant for the off-kilter but this was something else. It was sort of like the first time I heard Joy Division but less depressing. My experience was not unique. I included it for a Sancerre class I taught at 18 Reasons a couple of years ago and while it was polarizing, more people liked it than not and those who did were blown away. Made from a 35-year-old three-acre parcel planted on chalky limestone and clay, the grapes were directly pressed without skin contact.Thirty percent of the grapes had botrytis and this is typical of most years. Sébastien ferments his lieu dit wines in eight – 15-year-old oak barrels, exclusively with native yeast, allows them to undergo malolactic fermentation and ages them in wood for two years. All are bottled unfined, unfiltered and without SO2. I find Akmèniné is often the richest though it has the acidity to match. When I tasted it last week I got a marmalade, chamomile flower character. It has oxidative notes that are evocative of some of the white wines made in the Jura and as is true of Riffault’s other wines, it can age for several years at a minimum.
2013 Riffault “Skeveldra” ($45)
At this point, you might be wondering what’s with all these non-French-sounding names. Sébastien’s lovely wife, Juraté, is from Lithuania so since his last name is the rather Frankish sounding Riffault, they chose to give the wines and their children Lithuanian names. Skeveldra means stone fragment and appropriately, the vineyard is chock full of silex (flint). It is a minuscule 1.75-acre plot planted more than 40 years ago and 50% of the grapes are botrytized. Compared to Akmèniné, it has more of an angularity but it is still pretty voluminous on the palate with green olives, stone fruits, spiced honey and mineral underpinnings.
2013 Riffault “Sauletas” ($45)
I tasted an earlier vintage of this wine that was still in barrel when I visited Riffault in 2014. Some people say all wines taste good out of barrel but this was stunning – as in Farrah Fawcett at her peak gorgeous. Farrah might be gone but every time I look at my Charlie’s Angels mouse pad I am reminded of her beauty and every time I taste Sauletas I’m taken back to that cold February afternoon in Sébastien’s cellar. It is a marvelous wine and compared to his others maybe the most elegant, which is not to say light or dainty but subtle and nuanced with traces of citrus and stone fruit, herbal undertones and a mineral salinity. It was harvested with 50% botrytis.
2013 Riffault “Auksinis” ($45)
Auksinis is a three acre, 50-year-old vineyard with clay and limestone. Of the wines I tried a couple of weeks ago with Sébastien and Erin, it had the most mineral intensity, with olives, grapefruit and kumquats. As they were leaving for dinner I had to make a trip to Rite Aid in Westwood to buy a padlock – don’t ask – and the flavor lingered during the entire seven-minute Lyft ride. On any given day a wine can taste different but the next day I took another swig and it was every bit as good.
2013 Riffault “Auksinis” (skin contact) ($45)
People often assume that Riffault’s wines have skin contact because they are amber colored but this is the first skin macerated white wine he’s released. Truth be told, I dug it though not as much as the direct pressed version of Auksinis. In fairness, white wines with skin contact often need more time to come around so I’d put this away for a while. Knowing every other white wine Riffault has made I’m sure it will be delicious in a year or so and to be clear, it’s hardly a dud now – just a little rough around the edges. Both this wine and the Auksinis without skin contact were picked with 50% botrytis.
I realize that Riffault’s wines are not for everyone but they deserve a chance. Sébastien also makes red using Pinot Noir that has botrytis as well. They are not imported at the moment. I’ve tasted them a few times and do not find them as compelling as the whites however they continue to improve. The whites though are very special and if you are a Sancerre fan, dig natural wine or are just curious/adventurous, be sure to check every wine Sébastien Riffault makes.
“We feel our vines are in good biodynamic balance. We are not using fertilizer. In case of compact grapes we can remove the gray rot because we are harvesting by hand, not mechanically” – Sébastien Riffault
Here is a partial list of where Riffault’s wines may be purchased:
NYC: Discover Wines, Thirst Wine Merchants
Los Angeles: Bar & Garden, Domaine L.A., Lou, Marvin (a restaurant but they have a retail license), Simon’s Provisions
Bay Area: Ordinaire, The Punchdown, Ruby Wine